Even though I am pretty sure Dracula (1931) was my first horror movie, the Creature, or the Gill Man as he’s more widely known, was my first real monster love. I think it was the epic title that first caught my eye. I noticed the 90’s Universal Studios VHS tape cover. The Gill Man’s bright yellow eyes were front and center with two divers, practically invisible, swimming in the background. I don’t really remember watching it for the first time but I remember loving it so much that I wanted to show my friends this super cool old movie I’d found. It was something no one else my age knew about. It was my “thing” that I could show off. I was a little 9 year old girl and I was hooked on the Gill Man!
In a great article from 2012 on tor.com, writer Ryan Britt sums it up perfectly in the first sentence of his essay, In and Out of the Lagoon: Why We Love the Gill Man:
“Just because your protagonists in genre fiction aren’t human people, doesn’t mean we don’t feel for them.”
You can’t tell me you don’t feel something for Marlon when at the end of Finding Nemo, he suspects Nemo is dead, can you? What about Sully when he has to leave Boo at the end of Monster’s Inc.? You’re sad for him, right? How about E.T. when he’s about to leave and he tells Elliot, “I’ll be right here” pointing his finger to Elliot’s forehead. You’re going to miss E.T. too. Or, and here come the waterworks, when Dumbo’s mother is chained up and she reaches through the bars so that she can barely touch her son’s trunk and the song “Baby of Mine” begins to play. Anybody got a tissue? Holy crap. None of the characters I have mentioned (save for Boo and Elliot) are human. Still, you love them and you cry for them; you want them to be happy. You’re rooting for them the entire way.
Guess what? You find yourself doing the same for the Gill Man in the Creature from the Black Lagoon movies.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon starts with an explosion. A booming voice, heard over the images of a new planet Earth, quotes Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What!? Creature begins the same way the Holy Bible begins, hinting that the beginning of the Gill Man’s existence is no different from any human man’s existence. Like all great human tragedies though, sometimes our purpose is clouded and we grow lonely and afraid and look for love but never find it. In one of my all time favorite movie scenes in Creature, the Gill Man, played by Ricou Browning, swims directly under an unknowing Kay, mirroring her image. I’m geeking out just thinking about it!
The body language in this 3D, underwater scene is so beautiful, you can tell that the Gill Man thinks she is just the most wonderful thing he has ever seen. Without the use of words, we are filled with not only a sense of fear for Kay but understanding for the Gill Man. Kay (Julie Adams) rejects the Gill Man’s advances by the end and one can’t help but feel bad that he doesn’t get the girl (#teamGillMan) especially after he’s been drugged, caged, beaten and shot multiple times. In the sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), the Gill Man is successfully captured and sent to Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida (aka Marineland) where he is poked and prodded and chained to to the bottom of his tank. This might be the reason why I never liked marine mammal parks, even as a kid. The Gill Man eventually escapes and looks for the one woman in the film, the ichthyology student, Helen (Lori Nelson). She, of course, rejects his love much like Kay. At the end of the film when she asks him to “STOP” hurting John Agar’s character, the Gill Man listens to her, which keeps Agar’s character alive. One could argue that it’s not out of love but because he was tortured into learning the word. In The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the last of the Gill Man movies, he still doesn’t get a break. He is caught once again but this time he is greatly burned. His scaly skin is gone and his gills have melted shut. It is discovered that he has human skin underneath his scales and that he must now use his lungs to survive. At the end of the film, he makes the conscious decision to drown himself in the water, feeling like his life is no longer worth living.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon movies aren’t just about science and the missing link, they are about human existence and the question: “Who is the monster and who is the man?” In my opinion, the Gill Man relates to the character, Robert Neville, in the
book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Robert Neville is the sole human survivor of a pandemic that happened a few years ago. A new species has emerged from the pandemic and now the entire population has a condition that resembles vampirism.
At the end of the book, we discover, with Robert, that the new species believes that he is, in fact, the actual monster; the legend, since he is different from them and has been trying to kill them off. Such an incredibly sad and lonely tale.
So, one could argue that the Gill Man is not the monster…we are.
- Gracie Jarvis